Sunday, May 26, 2013

Already-Not Yet

Philippians 3:12-21

On June 6, 1944, on the eve of D-Day, General Dwight D. Eisenhower gave this speech:

Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months.

The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers in arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened, he will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man to man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our home fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to victory!

I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory!

Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.

Though he stated that they were marching together to victory, that victory was not realized until May 8, 1945, Victory in Europe Day. That said, however, it is certain that the D. Day events of June 6, 1944 were what led to victory. But although the Allies won this decisive battle, they were caught in an “already/not yet” situation. They were already victorious, but they had not yet won the war. They still had eleven months of fighting in front of them.

In Philippians 3, the Apostle Paul is describing another already/not yet situation. Last week we read his statement: I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

But Paul was caught in between the already and the not yet. So he continues:
Not that I have already attained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)

Paul knows that there is nothing he can do to earn his salvation. Any work he does will not achieve it, because the only necessary work has already been done. Jesus did it on the cross. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have any responsibility. As Paul wrote earlier, “Work hard to show the results of your salvation.” (Philippians 2:12b)

Now he expands this – he isn’t already perfect, so he presses on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of him. He knows that he hasn’t yet “arrived” but he does know that God has a plan and that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6) God has already done the work of salvation. God has already set forth the plan he has for us. God will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.  Which hasn’t been completed yet.

So here’s what Paul does: But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13b-14)

Paul is my kind of guy; he loves the running metaphor! When I’m running a race, if the guy ahead of me starts looking back, I know I’ve got him. If a runner is looking back, he’s not focused on the race anymore. He isn’t thinking about the finish line. There are a lot of church people who do a lot of looking back. Now, understand that there is a big difference between looking back and celebrating the past. We can celebrate that we are standing on the shoulders of giants who brought us to where we are today. We can celebrate with Hebrews 12’s great cloud of witnesses who cheer us on as we compete. But we get caught up in “we’ve always done it this way” and “we’ve never done that.” We get caught up in looking back and lamenting. This is not just silly and distracting, it completely undermines our purpose that God has called us to! If we let the past get in our way of making disciples of Jesus Christ, then we have completely missed the mark. We’re no longer running the race to win the prize for which God has called us heavenward in Christ Jesus. The already is our salvation. The not-yet is heaven and Jesus Himself. So keep on striving for Jesus!

If you don’t think Paul was a fiery guy, his next comment should show you clearly that is was: All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.

It might sound like Paul is arrogant – what right does he have to say that he is right? Well, first of all, he is calling them to follow his example, and secondly, he has the right. He is after all, their leader. They love and trust him. This is no stranger coming in and telling them what to do. He is not just posting something on the internet and hoping they will agree with him. They know him and respect and trust him. He has earned the right to be heard.

It can be easy to gloss over the importance of this passage by simply looking at the question of whether Paul has the right to call them to imitate him. Paul is exposing an important philosophy here; right views – that is, right thinking – leads to right behavior. One thing we suffer from is wrong thinking.

Wrong thinking tells the Shawnee Valley District of the United Methodist Church that we’re the poorest district in the West Ohio Conference, so don’t even think about raising money to make new disciples of Jesus Christ in Vietnam, but right thinking raises $90,000 at the Rally in the Valley.

Wrong thinking tells us that certain people are or aren’t welcome in God’s Kingdom, but right thinking invites everyone into a transformative relationship with Jesus.

Wrong thinking tells us that one person can never make a difference in the world, but right thinking leads us to make that difference.

Wrong thinking leads us to wrong behaviors. In today’s world, it’s often seen as offensive to suggest that someone’s way of thinking or their emotional responses might be wrong, but that’s exactly what I’m saying. And it’s what Paul is saying. And furthermore, Paul is saying that one of the causes of wrong thinking is spiritual immaturity. You don’t have to be a child to be spiritually immature. You can be in church your whole life and still be spiritually immature, still needing spoon-fed. But you don’t have to stay that way; you can grow up spiritually! In Romans 12:2, we read: Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. (Romans 12:2a) But Paul goes on to say, if you don’t think alike, God will make it clear to you. Whatever the case, he finishes up this thought in verse 16: Only let us live up to what we have already attained.

If we have right thinking, we will live it out, living up to what we have already attained. Back to the already/not yet – we have already attained salvation. Jesus already paid the price. Now let’s live up to it!

Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. (Philippians 3:17) For those who say that the Bible tells us not to judge, understand that we aren’t the judge, but we are definitely to discern between right and thoughts and actions and wrong thoughts and actions. Were there no difference between right and wrong, or were there no moral absolutes, we wouldn’t have to have this conversation. But there are moral standards and God is clear on them. And where he is not, spend time with him and ask the Holy Spirit if it is something you need to be concerned with.

But the truth is that not everyone is Christian-friendly.

For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. (Philippians 3:18-19)

In context, this isn’t a warning about non-Christians. This isn’t an attack from atheists (though these attacks do come). This is about wrong-thinking Christians whose wrong-thinking has led to wrong behavior. They have truly become enemies of the cross of Christ. There are some popular Christian televangelists who, whenever they open their mouths, I cringe. There are the health-and-wealth prosperity gospel preachers who embody the concept of “their god is their stomach” – in other words, physical pleasure. They are all about how much money they can make and how many toys they can buy. They are all about their own personal glory; their mind is on earthly things. And there are the ones who always seem to turn up on the news, picketing soldiers funerals and so forth, shouting a message of hatred. And there are the talking heads on TV who are always quick to claim a natural disaster as “God’s wrath poured out for whatever sinful reason, usually having to do with gay people.”

I can’t help but think that they are living as enemies of the cross of Christ, the cross which brings reconciliation and love to those who were far from God.

Paul mentions them because he wants to make a clear distinction between right thinkers who work hard to live up to God’s salvation and between the wrong thinkers who live for themselves. Those who aren’t Christians can be overlooked for living for themselves, because they are citizens of this world.

But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. (Philippians 3:20-21)

The world throws all kinds of stuff at us, and we have to constantly keep our hearts and minds on Christ and listen to the Holy Spirit to know what is of this world and what is of heaven. The world tells us that certain things are important – like making lots of money, wearing all the right clothes, driving the right cars, getting our kids into the right colleges and all manner of lesser items.

In his book Unfinished, Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, asks these Kingdom questions:

Have you adopted kingdom values and principles, worked to change your bad habits, forgiven those who have wronged you, been loving to others, been generous with your money, become part of a local church, volunteered at church for the more humble jobs, put others ahead of yourself, and tithed your income?

That is the difference between worldly people and citizens of heaven. The worldly would never even think of trying to fulfill those questions, while citizens of heaven will ask the Holy Spirit to accomplish that within them.

And Paul reminds us that we await our savior’s return, the not-yet part of the equation, because he will return and make all things new. We know the end of the story. But in the meantime, as we wait, let us live out what God has saved us for.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Lot to Brag About

Philippians 2:19-30, 3:1-11

I don’t think we can adequately understand how hard it was on Paul, waiting to receive news about his loved ones, when we are bombarded with news. If my mom hasn’t gotten a Facebook update from me in a couple of days, she gets frantic (sorry for picking on you mom, and please know that this is hyperbole). We have Facebook and cellphones and Skype and stuff I don’t even know about.

Instead of all of that, Paul has Timothy. We already discussed Timothy very briefly when we looked at the introduction and back in January I had a sermon series about Paul which included a sermon about Timothy, Paul’s  “beloved son in the Lord” (2 Corinthians 4:17), his “true son in the faith” (1 Timothy 1:2). As we’ve gotten this far in Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, we have seen that Paul is calling the Philippians to have a Christ-like attitude, one that values others over self, but did you notice Paul’s attitude? Paul is in prison, where Timothy and Epaphroditus are there encouraging him, but Paul is thinking about the Philippians. He can’t wait to send Timothy to them, because Timothy loves the Philippians more than anyone. And above anyone else, Timothy takes a genuine interest in their welfare.

For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.

We’ve gone over this a couple of times, but it bears repeating: everyone would be better off if our prayers and our actions and attitudes revolved around what is in Jesus’ interest. Even Jesus prayed for his Father’s will to be done and not his own.

So Timothy is that one person who values the Philippian church more than anything. This is one of the chief purposes of the first half of Paul’s letter – that we are indeed to “look out for number one” – just as long as “number one” is the cross of Jesus and our neighbors.

And then there is Epaphroditus. His story is this: he was from Philippi and was sent from Philippi to take care of Paul in prison. But while he was away from home, he got very sick and almost died. Everyone knows that there’s no place like home when you are sick, and Epaphroditus had to fend for himself while sick. When they heard about it in Philippi, they were very distressed. But did you notice his attitude? Here is another guy with a great attitude. He wasn’t distressed because he was sick and almost died; he was distressed because his friends back in Philippi heard he was sick. He didn’t want to be a burden; he wanted to continue to do Jesus’ work – which he was willing to do, even to the point of death!

The Philippians should know that even though Epaphroditus is returning early from his mission trip, that he was not a failure in mission – that indeed he was successful because his obedience mirrored that of Jesus Christ. Sometimes it can be hard to be obedient. I’ve heard it said that “it’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me; it’s the parts I do understand.” With that thought in mind, what would happen if we defined all of our successes by our obedience? Sometimes it can be hard to discern where God might take us, but God doesn’t require us to take the whole journey in one step. God requires us to take one step at a time, and often God only shows us what the next step is.

As we get to the beginning of chapter 3, we see a sharp turn in Paul’s letter. He has been encouraging the church in Philippi, thanking them for sending Epaphroditus with a gift that has actually sustained his life. He has been encouraging them to be humble, valuing others above themselves. He has been telling them to have God’s unshakable joy, even while they are suffering. Chapter 3 begins with a repetition of this joy.

Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you.

And now he shifts gears dramatically. But that shift shouldn’t be read as separate from verse one. He is using verse one to prepare the audience for verse two. He is saying, “I have said this before, and I’m not bothered by having to write it again, because I’m dictating it to Timothy, so he technically has to write it, but all the same, I’d say it anyway because it is meant to keep you safe.”

His safeguard? Watch out.

In Paul’s day, there were groups of Jewish Christians who would follow Paul around and cause huge trouble for him. Not only would they oppose his teaching, but they would frequently incite riots and even cause physical harm to Paul. These Jewish Christians required any Gentile believer to be circumcised to become a Christian. If you can imagine, this was a big issue in the early church: do you have to become Jewish to become Christian? So Paul warns the Philippians: Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh – though I myself have reasons for such confidence.

While we don’t require people to become Jewish before they can become Christians, unfortunately, Christians today can be just as misguided as those Jewish Christians. I don’t know how many times I’ve invited someone to church and they have all kinds of reasons why they don’t come. One thing I hear frequently is they’ll joke that they’ll be struck by lightning if they come into the building (or that the roof will fall in). Why would they say this? Because they have an underlying fear that they aren’t worthy to even come into the building.

Some people don’t think they can come here because they don’t look right, have the right clothes, have the right name, or whatever else they think might disqualify them from being part of us.

Other people have the impression that to become a Christian, someone has to behave a certain way. Now, they are kind of right to have that impression, because the Bible tells us all kinds of things that we are supposed to do and other things that we aren’t supposed to do.

But those aren’t conditions of our salvation! We don’t have to already have it right to come to Jesus. In fact, we can’t already have it all together! And Paul wants everyone to know that those conditions are wrong. So he goes on to show how he, of all people, should have confidence in the flesh – in other words, have confidence in all of his accomplishments and accolades.

If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.

If you think you are righteous, Paul can one-up you. His pedigree is better. His education is better. His works are better. Paul was a rock star. He had it all. And as humans, we are always bragging about our personal pedigrees. We are raised and trained to do this. We write r
ésumés and applications and we are asked to highlight our education, achievements and awards. We get scholarships and jobs and careers and even volunteer positions in churches based on all that we’ve done.

I know plenty of people who are “cultural Christians” who think because they were baptized at some point of their lives that they’ve got it made. I know people who are more patriotic than Christian and who somehow believe that the USA is God’s Chosen People, and somehow confuse patriotism with Christianity. I know people who are careful to always have the right answers and do all the churchy things and they make sure to never miss church, but their hearts aren’t right with God.

So Paul turns it all upside-down:

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish,

I don’t want to quickly gloss over this, because it’s important. Do you hear how vehemently Paul is writing here? He is not saying that his achievements don’t matter or that they’re unimportant. He is saying that they are garbage. In fact, that word “rubbish” is a nice way of putting it. In Greek, he is making a play on the fact that he called the Judaisers “dogs” earlier – when I had a dog, I remember once he found this horrible nasty dead fish by the road, and of course he ate it. This is a better translation of what Paul is saying; instead of “rubbish,” this is the nasty, foul-smelling street garbage that only a stray dog would eat. And this is what Paul is calling his pedigree.

He recognizes that all of the things that the world holds important are foul-smelling street garbage, only fit for nasty mangy dogs, for the purpose: that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Blameless following of all of the rules is street garbage. We cannot just sit back and say, “I followed the rules. I was baptized. I go to church,” and think that’s what saves us!

Righteousness, that is, right relationship with God, only comes from God and is by faith! Jesus makes the offer, and we accept, and God does the work.

That kind of makes it sound simplistic, and I realize that life isn’t that easy. Even Paul mentions Jesus suffering and dying as something we will participate in along our pathway to resurrection. Remember that Paul has been telling his audience that we need to have the same attitude that was in Christ Jesus, and that our job is to work as a result of our salvation.

Here’s the thing: everyone is going in one direction or another. Our lives are moving on some trajectory or another. Our culture tells us that we can pick our own direction – that we can be whatever we want to be – but that direction only gets us so far. Our direction has to be set by Jesus Christ – by knowing Him fully.

To know Christ means first of all to know the power of his resurrection. If Jesus was merely a good teacher and a religious martyr, then we can know about him, but to actually know him is different. It only happens because we know a resurrected Jesus, one who is alive. And we know him through Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ resurrection is powerful because it gives that power to us! So we, too, can experience God’s power in our lives today, even in the midst of difficulties and struggles, and, when we, too die, we will receive our resurrection and our reward!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Our Reward is Coming

Philippians 2:5-18

Last week, we got a full-on attitude check. Not an “at least my attitude is OK” kind of attitude check, but the kind where we ask, “Is my attitude the same as Jesus’ attitude?”

I fully believe that Jesus had every opportunity and ability to quit. At any time, Jesus could have called the whole thing off. But instead, Jesus chose to serve humanity, going so far as to offer himself as a sacrifice on the cross.

And so God gave Jesus his reward – he exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name. Jesus’ obedience even to death on a cross reveals Jesus’ equality with God.  There is a reason Paul says all of this, and I’ve often been guilty of taking what commentaries call the “Christ Hymn” out of Paul’s context and using it solely to look at Jesus and his actions and his character, but Paul has a specific reason for saying all this.

One of the reasons Paul is writing to the Philippian Church is to encourage them in their struggle. They are seeing people preach for selfish reasons and they are suffering persecution, and Paul is saying, “Look to Jesus!” Jesus endured much worse, but he was rewarded!

Because of what Jesus did, Paul can implore the Philippians to continue to obey Jesus – in other words, to bow their knee and confess his Lordship – to give him control of everything, because they, and we, will also be rewarded if we endure.

So what do we make of Paul’s command to work out your salvation with fear and trembling? Did Paul do an about face and nullify his statement from Ephesians 2:8-9? That’s where he said, “For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” If he didn’t mean you can work to save yourself, what could he mean?

The first thing we have to do to figure this out is look at context. Actually I already started that by bringing up the context of his theology as demonstrated in his other letters, but what is he talking about right here in Philippians?

If we look at the context, this statement is not about getting unsaved people saved. Their salvation has already been accomplished. Gordon Fee explains this by saying that Paul is referring to the present “outworking” of their salvation within the believing community in Philippi. “The issue is obedience, pure and simple, which in this case is defined as their ‘working or carrying out in their corporate life the salvation that God has graciously given them.’” (New International Commentary on the New Testament: Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, Gordon Fee, ed., p. 235)

Though the phrase “work out your salvation” is troublesome, the reality is that it doesn’t mean what some people have misconstrued it to mean. I like the way the New Living Translation puts it: work hard to show the results of your salvation. We don’t work to achieve our salvation; we work because of our salvation. This seems like a good time for this reminder: we as Christians do what we do out of obedience, and our obedience stems from our love. Christianity is all about a relationship! Though I would love for the secular world to obey God’s rules, they have no basis for that obedience, because they do not know or love God. God doesn’t want rote obedience without love! This is where the Pharisees got it wrong, and Jesus called them out on it. They wanted so much to follow every aspect of God’s Law that they added rules to keep them from the possibility of breaking a rule, but they missed out on the most important thing: loving the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Here’s the second part. The Philippians are called to work hard to show the results of their salvation, even while Paul isn’t there, but they’re not alone, and neither is the effort theirs alone. For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. (Philippians 2:13)

There are many times when we take too much responsibility and pressure on ourselves as church leaders. We think everything depends on us. In fact, I’ve heard preachers say, “Pray as though everything depends on God and work as though everything depends on you.” The problem is that this divorces our prayer life from our actions and it puts too much emphasis on our works and behaviors and feeds into a workaholic culture of shame and guilt. After all, if we work like it all depends on us, what happens when “it” fails, whatever “it” might be? It must have failed because we’re failures. We think it’s because we didn’t work hard enough.

But the other side of this is that we often will fail to do anything because the task is too great. There are so many voices telling us that what we want to do is impossible. Here’s what World Vision President Richard Stearns had to say in an interview in Leadership Magazine (May 6, 2013) :

God doesn't want to use people who aren't committed. God invites us but we have to RSVP. We have to say to Jesus, "Here are all the things I have in my life: my money, my house, my career, my skills, and we have to lay them down and ask him to use us. Many Christians have not taken that step. They've not gone all in with their Christian faith.

A lot people say, "I want to do something like you're doing, I want to make a difference for God!" Often I have to answer, "Why would God use you for a significant assignment if you haven't even committed to the simplest things? You haven't committed to tithing, to obedience, you haven't committed to reading the Scripture. If you are faithful in the small things you'll keep getting bigger opportunities to serve.

Paul later will remind the Philippians that I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:13) We will look at this scripture in a little more depth when we get there, but the fact is, without God all we can do is little things. With God, we can do big things, things that are too big for us to do. When we get on board with the purpose God has for us, we can and will succeed! We will make a difference for God! This is why Paul says, For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

In other words, if God wants it done, and we’re willing to obey, one step at a time, God will accomplish what God sets out to do. Here Paul is elaborating on what he said in the introductory remarks: being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6)

And so, if we are working because of our salvation, which God gives us even though we don’t deserve it, and if God is the one who is working in us to will and to act according to his purpose, it stands to reason that we should Do everything without complaining or arguing (Philippians 2:14). Seriously, if you’re one of those who thinks that “grumbling” is your spiritual gift, get over yourself. Whining and moaning aren’t spiritual gifts, either. We are working for God’s purpose, so we don’t have any room for complaining. Additionally, living life without complaining has another purpose. It serves to move us toward perfection.

Paul says that we should Do everything without complaining or arguing (Philippians 2:14) for a reason: so that you may become blameless and pure children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life – in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing. (Philippians 2:15-16)

This is a great Wesleyan concept here - sanctification. As Methodists, we believe that sanctification is both instantaneous and gradual or progressive. Sanctification is the church word for the concept of God setting us apart for God’s purpose and transforming us, actually making us holy. At the moment of our salvation, God also sanctifies us. John Wesley calls this “initial sanctification” and through God’s grace, we are made holy at that moment. But that isn’t the end; we allow God’s grace to transform us and make us blameless and pure – entirely sanctified, or, in another word, Christlikeness.

I am purposely not going to fall into the trap of describing how we live in a crooked and depraved generation, simply because every generation tends to focus on how theirs is the worst ever. Suffice it to say that the Philippians lived among a crooked and depraved generation and we do, too. I don’t want to focus too much on them, because we can end up patting ourselves on the back for what we don’t do, saying, “At least I’m not as crooked and depraved as…”

That’s a false comparison. We can always find someone worse or something that we haven’t done or would never do. Jesus’ standard, from Matthew 5:48, is Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. And God actually is making us perfect. And he uses troubles, sorrows, and struggles as part of what Christian philosophers call a “soul-making” environment. God uses all of these things in the process of purifying us. It’s like the process of purifying gold, where it is super-heated and chemicals are introduced and the impurities are then separated from the gold. It’s not a pleasant or easy process, but the end result is worth it.

And if, instead of comparing ourselves to others, we allow the Holy Spirit to work within us to sanctify and perfect us, and we diligently work as a result of our salvation, the world will see us. We will shine like stars in the universe – light in the darkness. The world will see Jesus through us.

And again, Paul reminds the church of how he feels about them, that he loves to tell everyone about how well they are doing – partially because it encourages him in his own struggle. He knows he invested his life in this church and these people, and because they are on the right track, if they keep stepping it up, he can know that he didn’t waste his time. There are days as preachers where we wonder if anyone is listening at all. Or if any of it is sinking in. Add to that the fact that Paul is sitting in prison with little to no contact with the church. He needs that encouragement, that he didn’t do all of this for nothing. He is, after all, human.

Don’t be thrown off by Paul’s use of the word “boasting” – even though we most often see boasting as a negative – bringing attention to oneself, tooting one’s own horn – but in this case, it’s not at all about anything that Paul has done; it’s all about God, how Paul has all trust and confidence in Christ, and he knows that Christ is all they need.

And it’s good to have all you need, especially in the face of trials and struggles. Remember that Paul and the Philippians were facing struggles. Paul equated his own imprisonment with being poured out as a drink offering. (But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. Philippians 2:17) In other words, his struggle was his sacrifice. The Old Testament gave all the rules for sacrifice – and sacrifice isn’t sacrifice if it doesn’t cost. This is one reason God asks for “first fruits” – the first part of the harvest, or, for those of us who aren’t in an agrarian society, the first part of our pay goes to God.

But in the midst of the struggle, Paul is glad and he rejoices. How can this happen? It can happen because joy isn’t dependent on circumstances. It’s all about understanding our place in Christ.

Now understand that Paul isn’t saying that every bad circumstance can or should bring about joy. He is talking specifically about suffering for Christ. There are times when we talk about regular human suffering as “our cross to bear” when it’s not anything of the sort. It’s just part of being human in a fallen world. But when we suffer for sharing Christ, then Paul says, “So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.” (Philippians 2:18)

If we are willing to allow God to shape us into the likeness of Christ, if we are willing for God to get the glory for completing the work He started in us, if we are willing to respond to God by working as a response to our salvation, then just like God gave Jesus his reward, God will give us joy – even in this life. And in the life to come, God will give us Himself.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Attitude Check

Philippians 1:27-2:11

I had a lot of misconceptions as a child, but one of the most insidious was the thought that living a Christian life was going to be easy. I’m not sure exactly how I came to think this, and it sounds really nice – but there is only one little problem with it: it doesn’t fit with scripture. Paul is writing to the church in Philippi to thank them for their gift, which is sustaining him while he is in prison for preaching the good news of Jesus Christ, and to encourage them during their own struggles. He just told them that he wants above anything to die and be with Jesus Christ face-to-face, because this is better than the best things on earth, but that because he still has a job to do for the church, he is still alive. He really wants to come and visit them again so their joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of him (Philippians 1:26).

In the meantime, Paul exhorts the Philippian church to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ (Philippians 1:27). Now I know I said that Paul didn’t write Philippians to correct a wrong, but even while he was writing to encourage them, he knows that there are some issues. The issues aren’t huge, but they are significant. Last week we read that some of the preachers have underlying motives behind what they are doing – it sounds like there is some bickering and posturing going on. We might not acknowledge it, but it happens – when we want something to go our way, instead of showing how it fits with our desire to make new disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, we instead turn to our years of service or how much money we’ve given or how it might offend somebody or other.

So Paul tells them: Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. (Philippians 1:27-28a)

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, he tells them. Did your parents ever use the tactic where they would say, “I don’t care how they behave, but you won’t behave like that because you’re a Vinson”? Of course they did, because your parents had standards for you to live up to. We do this, we don’t do that. No matter where you go, you are still their son or daughter, so if you are at school, on vacation, out with your friends, there are still standards, and they are always the same.  This is kind of what Paul is talking about, but even more.

Philippi was an honored city in the Roman Empire. Philippi wasn’t Roman by location, but it was a Roman colony in Macedonia. Every Philippian was thus a Roman citizen. Likewise, the church in Philippi is a “colony of heaven” so to speak – so the members were thus citizens of heaven. Elsewhere, Paul calls himself (and those with him) Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.).

The picture here is like an embassy. When I was in Russia, we were instructed that if anything happened, we should go to the U.S. Embassy. Why? Because even though everything around it is Russia, once you are in the embassy, you are officially on U.S. soil. The embassy is part of the U.S. And though we live here, our citizenship is heaven, as Paul will get to in chapter 3.

So because the Christians in the Philippian church are indeed citizens of heaven, God calls them to heavenly conduct. Specifically, here, they are called to stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. (Philippians 1:27b-28a)

They are one unified body, no matter what comes against them. There are so many issues where Christians are not unified, and the world laughs at us. But when we stand together, the world recognizes it. Paul even tells the Philippian church that “this is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God.”(Philippians 1:28b).

Oh, by the way, when that information is known, beware, because others won’t be happy with it. They’ll call it unfair or insensitive or exclusive, and guess what? Besides the ever true “life isn’t fair,” it’s not fair that we are saved – because we don’t deserve it. Nobody deserves it. So the fact that God would put some requirements on salvation shouldn’t be surprising to us; it’s all up to God, because nobody deserves it. This is why grace is grace. It is God’s unmerited favor. If someone wants to play the “fair” card, go ahead and live a perfect life and then there’s room to talk. But people don’t like this kind of talk, so it’s no wonder the Philippian church is undergoing persecution. In the meantime, they are called to be led by one Spirit – the Holy Spirit.

As we get into chapter two, Paul’s rhetorical expertise comes into play. Therefore, he says, and I learned as a kid that when you see “therefore” in the Bible, you have to go back and “see what the therefore is there for.” Paul is saying that since they are citizens of Heaven, standing together in the unity of the Holy Spirit, then this is what they are to do.

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

This is a power-packed paragraph. Paul knows that the Philippian church has received encouragement from their unity with Christ. They have received comfort from his love. They share the one Holy Spirit in common. Of course they are tender and compassionate; he knows this because he has been the recipient of their care and love. So he asks them to step it up one more notch. He isn’t asking them to do something completely foreign. He isn’t asking them to do something completely out of character. He is just asking them to take it up a notch, being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. In other words, you’re really on the right path. Now, if we can only put down the silly one-upmanship stuff, the ridiculous rivalries, the selfish ambitions, the “let’s do this because it makes me look good” intentions…

He isn’t just talking to the Philippian church here, either. He is talking to us. Seriously, What would happen if we took it up a notch? What would happen if we stopped thinking about ourselves first and began thinking about how we could most effectively reach out to make new disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?

Paul hits us in the selfish gut when he says this: Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 1:4)

Now before we get to how we do this, we have to ask what valuing others above ourselves really means. There are some people who think it means they have to pretend. They say, “aw, shucks, it was nothing,” but they really expect you to go on and on about how great they are. There are others who think this means they have to downplay or devalue their gifts and abilities – that if they’re good at something, they shouldn’t do it too well because then people are going to complement them or think they’re looking to their own interests. Or if they are the expert in a field, deferring to others who don’t know anything about it, just to make sure that nobody thinks they aren’t humble. Some will even refuse to care for themselves and devalue themselves in an attempt at humility, but this is not what Paul is after in the least.

It can be tempting to use this passage for self-humiliation. To say, “I’m not worth anything; I should treat others as better than myself because they are better than I am.” But this kind of self-humiliation is destructive and pure deception.

We have to understand where our value comes from. If I pulled out a brand new fifty dollar bill, and asked what it was worth, you might say fifty dollars. But what would you say if I wadded it up into a ball, threw it on the floor, and stomped on it? How much is it worth now? It’s still worth fifty dollars not because of what it looks like, but because of what it is. Our government declares that a fifty dollar bill is worth fifty dollars, and by their authority, that’s what it’s worth, no matter how tattered or crumpled the bill is.

When God created humanity, God didn’t say, “Well, that Adam’s a mess. He needs to get in shape and needs to work harder to be a better dad and husband and he’d better prove his worth at the office. And Eve. She’s overweight and her hair looks terrible and her house is a filthy mess. And her kids are always fighting.” No, when God created them, God pronounced them “very good.” Furthermore, the Bible tells us that God made humanity in his own image.

So this is where we get our worth and our value from. It’s not from how beaten down the world has made us. How tired we are or how far we feel we are from the standard that we see around us. Our worth and our value come simply from who God made us to be and whose we are. And God, who made each of us in His own image, calls each of us “very good.”

So rather than putting yourself down, saying, “You’re better than I am,” we humble ourselves. There is a subtle difference here, but instead of a question of “value,” this is a question of “ranking.” Here we make the decision to put someone else first. And Paul looks to the ultimate example to explain this: Jesus Christ.

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant [slave], being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient to death, even death on a cross.

Jesus is God. But Jesus didn’t use his nature or his status to lord it over others. He doesn’t deny his identity as equal with God, but instead he promotes the interests of others first. Jesus emptied himself and took the nature of a human slave. He came to serve, not to be served. How far was Jesus willing to take this? All the way to death, and even death on a cross, which was not only a horribly excruciating way to die, but also was considered to be a sign of God’s curse upon you.

Jesus did this to promote the interests of others. How does his death on the cross do this? Simply because we are not able to save ourselves and we need a perfect sacrifice. Because Jesus loves us so much, he did for us what we could not do for ourselves.

The reason Paul tells us all of this about Jesus is as the ultimate example to follow. This is why he prefaces this section by saying, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:5)

We are all due for an attitude check. There are things we like to do and other things we just don’t like to do. But if the goal is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, then we ought to be willing to step up, check our egos at the door, check our preferences and tastes, and do what might feel uncomfortable to us.

For example, one thing I do when I’m out running is I try to talk to everybody. I’ve even stopped and had prayer with someone on the bike path. One person I talked to told me that some people in our church are snooty and stuck-up. I know the people he was talking about, and I can assure you that they are neither snooty nor stuck-up. But this person’s judgment is driven by his perception – perhaps because the person he met didn’t say “Hi” to him or something. So maybe we could start by doing little things like saying, “Hi” to people or talking to the wait staff at the restaurant.

What might it look like in the church if we had Jesus Christ’s attitude? Though we have some outward-focused ministries, like our free meals and our involvement with My Brother’s Place, most of our focus is on meeting the wants of people who are already here. Most of our money stays here. When a church begins to focus outward, it gets uncomfortable. Suddenly you don’t know everyone, and that can be seen as a problem. In fact, I have had people tell me they didn’t want the church to grow specifically for that reason. Because they wouldn’t know everyone. Suddenly you start getting people who don’t understand the ritual. There are noisy kids where you expect silence. They wear clothes you wouldn’t call “church clothes.” They have tattoos and piercings. They might not look like, act like, dress like, or talk like “us.” They may worship in another language – don’t let me leading a couple of songs on the guitar confuse you – this is not contemporary worship by any stretch of the imagination. So what do we do? Choose things because they are what we like? Or angrily leave a church where they are doing different things?

It is a good time for a Christlike attitude check. Pray, asking the Holy Spirit to reveal where your attitude and His attitude aren’t in line. When you start to get offended, ask the Holy Spirit, “Am I right in being offended – or are you preparing me for a change in direction? Is my attitude that of Christ Jesus?”

When our attitude is the attitude that we see in Christ Jesus… well, then we will see the church doing our job. We will see the world transformed. It’s not about changing someone else’s attitude, because we can’t do that; it’s about the Holy Spirit transforming us, one person at a time.